Last year, our country was tragically reminded that space travel is a hazardous, and sometimes fatal, occupation. The loss of the shuttle Columbia and her crew was surprising to many in this day of "routine" space flight. But in the beginning, 45 years-or-so ago, there were no pretensions that the act of leaving the confines of Earth's atmosphere was anything but dangerous. The technology and the territory were totally uncharted, and the first astronauts were literally putting their lives on the line-allowing themselves to be strapped into capsules atop often unproven rocketships and shot off into the wide blue yonder. It started with the Mercury 7, a group of military test pilots who embraced the danger and excitement they faced and played as hard as they worked. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom was one of the original seven astronauts, and like many of his colleagues, he also embraced the excitement inherent with driving a Corvette.
Grissom was a central figure in the genesis of America's space program. He joined the Army Air Corps too late to see service in World War II, but, after earning a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, rejoined the now independent Air Force in time to fly 100 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets over Korea. By 1957, Grissom had attended Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was plying his trade at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio before being selected as one of the Mercury 7. Grissom's career was distinguished: he was the second American into space and the first American to enter outer space twice while at the helm of Gemini 1. Grissom wryly named the capsule (The Unsinkable) "Molly Brown" in reference to the Liberty Bell 7 that was lost at sea during his Mercury mission. That career ended in tragedy, however, when a flash fire during a launch pad test of the Apollo 1 craft he was commanding killed the three astronauts inside.
On a lighter note, Grissom was also central to the now well-known love affair between the early astronauts and Corvette, which began shortly after the inception of the space program itself. This relationship is documented in Tim Keenan's excellent article "Rocket Men in their Rocket Ships," which originally appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Corvette Quarterly and was later reprinted in the Spring 1993 issue of Quest Magazine. The astronaut/Corvette relationship began when Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 in 1961, managed to get a '62 Vette from GM, even though GM never gave cars away. The program snowballed when Jim Rathmann, former Indy 500 winner and Chevrolet dealer to this day, set-up a special lease program for America's astronauts. Grissom and Shepard were some of the biggest gearheads of the bunch, and they played with their cars the hardest-constantly tinkering with their Vettes in an ongoing effort to one-up each other. It was part and parcel for these young men who were living on the edge-pushing the envelope, as pilots say.
It's no surprise, then, that Grissom's last Vette, the '67 drop-top pictured here, was loaded for bear. There's no missing the Rally Red paint with white stinger, or the red leather interior, for that matter. Grissom also ordered his Sting Ray with other niceties such as power windows and steering, an AM/FM radio, a telescopic steering column, Soft Ray tinted glass, and "Strato-Ease" headrests. Lest we forget what type of man ordered this car, however, we'll also point out that Grissom ordered up the hot ticket to Corvette power-the 435hp Turbojet V-8 fitted with the optional transistor ignition and backed by an M21 close-ratio four-speed. He also added the off-road exhaust option-F41 heavy-duty suspension, a 3.70:1-geared Posi-traction rearend, and a speed warning indicator that we doubt he rarely, if ever, heeded. Serious go-fast goodies, indeed. Unfortunately, Grissom's enjoyment of this very cool car was cut short.
Records show that Betty Grissom sold the car back to Jim Rathmann Chevrolet in September 1967. The car was subsequently purchased by one Mel Phoenix, who had his own particular addiction to speed. According to a March 31, 1968 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Phoenix, an engineer who dealt with quality control on the massive Saturn rockets NASA used to propel the rocket men into outer space, was a "Man of All Hobbies." He held a black belt in judo, was an expert fencer, and actively raced both cars (the piece mentions modified midgets) and boats (namely hydroplanes, in which he neared the 100-mph mark).
One of Phoenix's more ambitious undertakings is mentioned only briefly in the article, and unfortunately that sentence is all the info we have about the man's plan to set-up Grissom's Corvette-which he bought from Rathmann in October 1967, "for a run for the national record of 231 miles an hour." From this point, much of the history of Grissom's Vette is sketchy. One thing that we can be fairly sure of is that Phoenix's speed record attempt didn't happen-mostly because the Rocketman's car was never modified for such an attempt, at least not extensively. Setting a speed record in the fallen astronaut's Corvette would have been appropriate, we think, but it didn't happen.
What did happen is that Grissom's '67 ended up as an NCRS Top Flight restoration, and it is owned today by someone who appreciates the car and its connection to America's space-faring history. Jim Falkowski of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, bought the convertible in 1986. Growing up in those early days of the "space race," Falkowski, like most other children of era, was fascinated by the prospect of climbing aboard a rocketship and blasting off to faraway worlds. "When I found out the car was for sale," he told us, "it meant a lot because of who owned it. Like all kids my age, the astronauts had intrigued me while growing up."
Falkowski has been able to trace the first three owners subsequent to Phoenix. But the rest of the intervening 10 years are something of a blank-including the identity of car's restorer, whose work has held up to this day and only needed a thorough detailing job by Falkowski to garner the '67 one of NCRS' coveted blue ribbons. Impressive as gaining Top Flight status is, however, it pales compared to the opportunities Falkowski has had to reconnect Grissom's old car with its past.
Falkowski's first invite was to celebrate the landing of the space shuttle Discovery, the first shuttle flight after the 1986 Challenger disaster. "They had a parade like they used to have for the Mercury and Gemini astronauts," he recounted for us. "I found an ad looking for the car in Florida Today." Answering the ad led to Falkowski and the '67 taking part in the October 24, 1988 motorcade celebrating the shuttle's successful return to (and from) space; he even got to meet Rick Hauck, the mission commander and pilot. Falkowski was also involved in the Gemini Celebration in 1993 where he conveyed Grissom's widow Betty and his son Scott in Gus' '67 during the event's parade. Falkowski also got to sit in on a bull session with Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, and Scott Carpenter from the Mercury 7, as some of America's original spacemen talked about hot rodding around the Cape and rambunctiously racing each other-all in their Corvettes, of course.
Today, Falkowski says he would find it tough to part with what is now his '67 Corvette Sting Ray convertible. For one thing, his wife and two daughters would protest mightily. For another, Jim Falkowski feels some strong emotions in owning the old astronaut's Vette; as he told us, there's a "connection to our country, to childhood dreams, to good times. I still get a chill when I get into the car and realize who drove it." And in that sense, while the Rocketman's car lives on, so does Gus Grissom, the Rocketman. (Jim Falkowski invites all who are interested to visit his Web site, www.gusgrissomcorvette.com.)